Over the Winter of 2014, the core Predator Alert Tool developers were interviewed for Medium.com’s Backchannel, an online outlet geared towards Silicon Valley insiders. As the maintainer and one of the two primary developers of the Predator Alert Tool project, I was contacted by Caleb Garling, Medium’s writer, about the piece and asked for input. I was hopeful that since Backchannel’s primary audience was relatively technical, Mr. Garling’s feature on Medium.com would primarily focus on the tools themselves and challenge other developers to take a closer look at what the social impact of the projects they’re engaged in actually are. Were my hopes met?
Flashback to one year earlier: Aaron Swartz’s death in January, 2013 sent a shock-wave of grief and sorrow through Silicon Valley, and the technology and entrepreneurial communities. I was couchsurfing in Oakland, CA at the time. I remember how the news of Aaron’s passing ripped through the Bay Area like a knife cutting out a piece of our collective soul, just as it did in Boston’s tech scene and all the other communities Aaron’s brilliance touched. It was visceral. Many people cried openly. Many of us, myself included, believe Aaron was effectively murdered by an inhumane, power-hungry, festering corporate-government alliance that views people like him—young, talented people who take acts that make the world a less authoritarian place—as a threat.
A documentary about Aaron’s life and death was released a few years later. One review provides this synopsis of Aaron’s impact:
Swartz’s “crime,” sharing academic information with the public, was the total package of what he represented, and that rankled the [American corporate capitalist] system so much. He looked like a prototypical hacker, he was very ideologically driven, and he was smarter than anyone running servers. He really could do whatever he wanted, and he was inspired to do quite a lot. So the state threw the book at him, charged with wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. He faced 35 years in jail, $1 million in fines, if convicted. The pressure of this horrible fate understandably depressed him severely, and in early 2013, at age 26, he committed suicide.
Shortly after Aaron’s death, the Electronic Frontier Foundation hosted a memorial service in downtown San Francisco. I was invited, attended, and was pleased to see a number of people I knew—people I called “friends” at the time—from tangentially related activist spheres there. One of these people was Clarisse Thorn, a sexuality and BDSM blogger with whom I’d semi-regularly collaborated and who had even come to my defense after a nasty personal attack I faced from the religious right/anti-porn cabal several years earlier. Back then, the Predator Alert Tool project was still in its nascent, earlier stages, and I was trying really hard to get technologists and other social activists interested in the project. Clarisse was one of the folks I’d approached about the tools multiple times with no supportive response.
“Why won’t you talk about the Predator Alert Tool publicly? Why won’t you even just mention it or link to it on Twitter? Why are you being so silent about this,” I remember asking her at the Swartz memorial.
“Thomas Millar [from the Yes Means Yes blog] and I have discussed it a lot, and we’re somewhat conflicted about it.” she said in her most diplomatic tone, dodging the question.
“Okay, so why such public silence?” I asked again. Clarisse said nothing. “Are you afraid of it?” I remember looking at her for a very long time. We were both holding plastic cups filled with wine. I had an empty plate. The party—like all well-funded, corporate-sponsored SF affairs—was somewhat extravagantly catered.
Finally, Clarisse answered: “I don’t want to risk being associated with your projects.”
I admit, I was surprised. But I was naïve back then. We all were. Aaron’s death came as such a surprise because too few of us recognized just how inhumane the system he was trying to change really is. In the documentary about Aaron, “The Internet’s Own Boy,” there’s a heartwrenching moment when Quinn Norton—who also writes for Medium.com—recounts how stunned she felt when she was questioned by law enforcement over Aaron’s activities: it wasn’t that the officers didn’t understand that they were systemically destroying Aaron’s life and support structures. After all, Quinn describes, then they could be reasoned with. The problem here was that law enforcement, the prosecutors, and the rest of the people involved in Aaron’s prosecution knew full well what they were doing and they didn’t care.
When I watched that portion of the documentary, I was reminded of that moment confronting Clarisse at Aaron’s memorial party. The irony of being told by someone who was supposedly my activist comrade in arms that her personal reputation mattered more to her than actually taking action and building a technical infrastructure to support vulnerable people, and at a memorial for a political activist, no less, was not lost on me. Several months later, when an email from Clarisse landed in my inbox asking me to help her promote her new book, I told her to shove it and never to contact me again.
To this day, she has never so much as said a public word about the tool, and her social circle—once also my social circle—continues to be silent about it. That same social circle whose members still claim to prioritize justice above all else. It turns out they’re frauds and they’re cowards and they’re petty.
That was two years ago. It was before the Snowden leak. Technologists were naïve. It’s 2015 now. Not even the mainstream denies that the US government is waging an all-out war, enabled by the NSA and their cronies, against anyone who dares to do what Aaron believed in: to give people knowledge, to empower individuals, to let us take back control over how we communicate. To build an infrastructure that comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. To take on—and to hack on—social issues. And to do it without a corporate motive.
So, how are we doing now, in 2015, on all that stuff we cried so passionately over when Aaron was taken from us, in 2013? I thought that maybe things would really start to change after Aaron died. They didn’t. Not really. Not on the scale it needs to for us to make a difference. I thought things would really change after the Snowden leak. They didn’t. Not really. Not on the scale it really needs to, for us to have a free enough infrastructure to make a difference. I was hopeful when Caleb Garling assured me time and time again over email and during our Skype call that I, maymay, the Predator Alert Tool developer “will definitely not be the focus of the story,” the project could finally start attracting the attention of technologists who want to follow in the footsteps of people like Aaron.
But I was sorely disappointed. Again. Instead of being an article about the tools, Garling’s piece is mostly about how “weird” I am. And, granted, maybe I am a little weird. But if “normal” means being happy with the system that killed Aaron, the system that keeps public, academic knowledge locked away in for-profit companies, that systemically erodes our civil liberties on purpose, that protects rapists over rape survivors? Well, then fuck normal.
For those of you who are interested, a transcript of my Skype interview with Caleb Garling is below. I think it’s a way better read than his fluffy article.
[Skype audio ringing.]
Caleb: Yeah, so maybe let’s jump in. I’d love to just, y’know, go through a few of the tools. I mean, I understand the high-level stuff for, y’know, the Facebook, Twitter and OkCupid extensions. But, uh, would love to kinda dig in there, and then just kinda ask some other questions and build a cool story.
Rebecca: Okay. Sounds great.
Caleb: So maybe just sort of, like, y’know, starting from the stratosphere, what brought on wanting to build these various extensions?
Rebecca: Um, well. So—
Maymay: That’s a big question.
Rebecca: It is a big question. So, the first Predator Alert Tool was written for a website called FetLife. I don’t know if you know it. It’s like a social networking/dating site for the BDSM Scene. And what was going on, was that the website had a policy that said you were not allowed to post the names of people—
Maymay: The usernames.
Rebecca: —the usernames? Or the real names?
Maymay: Any names.
Rebecca: Basically you weren’t allowed to name—
Maymay: Even by username. Like, by pseudonym.
Rebecca: —people who committed sexual assault. So people would be writing a post saying, “I had this experience with this person. I was sexually assaulted. This person violated my consent.” But they weren’t allowed to name that person, otherwise they’d get in trouble with the site administration.
Maymay: Well, I mean, that post would be deleted by the site administration—
Caleb: I see.
Maymay: —and they would face bans from the site.
Rebecca: Anyway, long story short, a lot of people on this site were putting pressure on the admins to allow them to talk about their experiences with sexual assault and the admins were not budging. And so maymay, who was on the site at the time, came along and was like, why don’t we just write an external tool that will do this so we can go around the admins and people can just share this information with each other outside of the site.
Rebecca: And that was a big hit. And, what, thousands of people installed it?
Maymay: Uh, yeah. It got something like 17,000 installs before the counter broke.
Rebecca: Yeah. [laughs] Um, and it kind of went from there. I don’t know if you’ve seen. I have a little blog post that’s about—its called “Rape Culture Meets Internet Culture.”
Rebecca: And it’s kind of about how each of the different Predator Alert Tools is built, it’s designed to interface with the culture of the social network that it’s built for. And so each of the tools is slightly different because each of those social networks is different, both technologically and culturally. And so Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid is a different model than the one for FetLife or the one for Facebook.
Rebecca: But that’s just because OkCupid is used different by users than, say, Facebook or Twitter. But ultimately they’re all under this umbrella of trying to help people share information with each other about their experiences.
Caleb: I see, okay. Um. So, when you were designing each one—maybe just start with the OkCupid one—I mean, you were talking about how it’s designed for each culture. How did you sort of start with, “Oh we want it to do X, Y, and Z.”
Maymay: Uh, do you mean, like, what were the technical considerations for the different toolsets? I’m not sure I understand the question.
Caleb: Well just, y’know, you’re building a piece of software, and in theory there’s a lot of things that you could do to, like—what is the target use case that you were going after, I guess, is a better way to ask it.
Maymay: Oh, well I think the key point that made both the first tool and the other tools, like, a hit and different than the way a lot of other people have approached this problem technologically, is that it doesn’t try to be this silo’ed repository somewhere else. Instead it puts the information about the, y’know, statements around sexual assault—and in the OkCupid case, self-reported statements about one’s attitude about consent, via the OkCupid Match Questions—it puts that information at the point of need for the user who’s installed the tool. So it’s not like you have to go somewhere else to find information about the profile you’re looking for, this simply, because it’s a browser plugin, because it integrates with the website’s graphical interface, it puts the information from wherever it gets it—regardless of the tool where it gets collected—on the website itself.
So in the case of OkCupid, the consideration was, “Where is this information? And how can we display that information in a meaningful way to the user?” And that was, obviously, lead to the Match Questions that OkCupid already uses and is already a core part of the site. So, is that what you’re getting at?
Caleb: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And so, there’s also, I’m assuming, this was filling in a need that OkCupid was not on top of these sorts of questions. They were not on top of these sort of criteria for matches?
Maymay: Well, I don’t know if you’ve seen recently, Christian Rudder, the CEO of OkCupid was challenged about his prioritization of what information OkCupid both collects and then asks users, and shares with users on an Interview [show] called On The Media. You saw that one?
Caleb: This was in response to their blog post about manipulating folks and, uh…?
Maymay: Yeah, and one of the things that they did in that specific question was that they artificially inflated people’s compatibility—reported compatibility—based on answers to questions like, “Is there ever a situation in which a person is obligated to have sex with you?” And a lot of people answered that this question was a deal breaker. Basically saying this is not a person I would want to go on a date with, for some obvious reasons. And OkCupid chose to elevate that compatibility matching without really showing the user—without showing the user at all, actually—how they were doing that. And this upset a lot of people.
Maymay: Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid, as an example, takes that specific question and simply surfaces the answer regardless of the match percentage or, y’know, other black-box algorithmic filter bubble bullshit that these companies want to present to you as a convenient measurement for going on dates. It’s like, this is actually a big deal. Someone says someone’s obligated to have sex with you, maybe you wanna know that regardless of how cute their profile picture is, or whatever.
Rebecca: This is kind of a key thing about the PAT for OkCupid that people sometimes miss, also. It’s not doing any kind of algorithmic math about who is or is not a predator. All it does is it takes questions that people themselves have said that this question would be a red-flag for me in terms of feeling safe on a date with this person, and it puts the answers to those questions front-and-center on profiles because some people have answered hundreds or thousands of questions, so you’re not necessarily going to come across that particular one unless you have some tool to highlight it.
Maymay: Yeah, and I think this is the point, technologically, is that a lot of these sites have made architectural choices about how to make information easy or not easy to find. And what information they choose to make easy or not easy to find tells you a lot about what their motivations are and what they are prioritizing. Not a single corporate-controlled social networking, dating, etc. website makes these kinds of things easy to find—the kinds of things that Predator Alert Tool focuses on—not Facebook, not FetLife, not OkCupid, because they have a business incentive to not.
Rebecca: It’s a turn off. They don’t want their users coming on a dating site and thinking about whether or not they might get raped.
Rebecca: And so, it’s not in their interest to have that be part of the conversation.
Maymay: And whenever it is part of the conversation, it’s always some completely ineffective, y’know, there’s a lip of service paid to this in a lot of different ways but it’s not, y’know, it’s silly at best.
Caleb: Yeah, agreed. Okay. That’s good. So, yeah, I think that’s really a strong point. That they’re not incentivized to even bring up this topic when obviously it should be one of the most thought about topics as you’re choosing to go on a date with someone.
Okay, um. So, then for, I wanna come back to OkCupid in a minute, but then just for Twitter, that seemed like a little bit more of an organization tool, just to kind of at least get the jerks out the way. I mean, like, really, just have the list of folks that you wanna be sure you’re aware of but that are not part of your feed, not part of your Twitter interactions.
Rebecca: Right. I mean, [Predator Alert Tool for] Twitter is, it’s the most decentralized of the tools so far. And the intent there is to, y’know, more than any of them, to empower the user to use the tool to do what is useful for them with it. So if someone wants to make a list to share with their friends of people in our community who I wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with, they can do that and share that list privately or publicly. If people wanna use it to share information about people they have bad Twitter interactions with, or people who are sort of prone to online harassment or bullying, they can use it for that. If they wanna use it to share information or just collect information for themselves about people they have had bad in-person interactions with, they can use it for that also.
Maymay: I think also there’s a number of similar Twitter tools, and I know Twitter has been focusing very heavily on harassment lately, but, um, all of the situations. Or, so, there’s The Block Bot, there’s BlockTogether.org, and there’s Twitter’s new Women, Action, and the Media survey about Twitter harassment.
Maymay: So-called “Supermoderator powers.” But the main difference between Predator Alert Tool and all these things is like she was saying, all of these other tools are ways of effectively outsourcing your decisions about what you choose to see to someone else that you trust. Now maybe you do trust The Block Bot’s centralized cabal of moderators. Maybe you do trust Twitter. Maybe you do trust Women, Action, and The Media. And maybe you do trust the BlockTogether folks. But in all those cases, you’re essentially choosing to give someone else control over what you see. And Predator Alert Tool for Twitter is different in that it does not preemptively block anybody, it simply, like the other Predator Alert Tools, raises information that’s curated from people you do trust, so that you can then make a decision. It changes the locus of control away from other people, to the end user themselves. Does that make sense?
Caleb: Yeah, it does. And then just tell me, y’know, just for readers, how is this thing moving above high powered lists, or how you’re organizing people you follow.
Maymay: Yeah, I mean they effectively are lists. The difference is that on Twitter, a Twitter list, people can remove themselves from the list because Twitter lists are supposed to be an organizing tool. If I say Caleb is writer, I can put you on my writing list. But let’s say you don’t like me, so you can remove yourself from my writing list. The point for Predator Alert Tool for Twitter is that the list isn’t controlled by Twitter. Twitter never knows that these lists exist, they’re not housed on Twitter. They’re housed inside the user’s browser, in the case of a private list, so it never even interacts with the Internet at all. Or they’re shared on something called a facilitator, which two users of Predator Alert Tool for Twitter can use, and then you can’t remove yourself from a list I create on Predator Alert Tool because that would defeat the purpose.
Rebecca: Also I don’t know if you’ve played with it, but the lists are annotated. So when I add someone to a list, I can also add a note and say, “I’m adding this person to a list of sexual predators because on January 14th, 1996 they did X, Y, Z.” And so then, if someone else is using that, downloads that list, then when that person shows up in their feed, they’ll show up red-boxed with that little annotation, giving them information about this person.
Maymay: Along with who annotated it.
Caleb: Ah, I see.
Maymay: I mean, you can almost think of it like a backchannel to Twitter itself. A lot of people will send DMs or something saying, like, “Hey careful of this person, they actually sent this awful tweet or whatever.” This is way to do that without relying on Twitter. And one of the key components, key ideas here technologically, is that if you’re gonna make an anti-harassment tool for Twitter, you have to treat Twitter itself as a potentially hostile entity. You can’t trust Twitter to appoint themselves the benevolent police of the Twitter social network because they have incentives that you may not necessarily agree with. In fact, you probably don’t, as a user. Like, a user and an administrator of a system are inherently at odds with one another in terms of what kinds of powers they believe they should have. See also society and government and, like, this is not a situation unique to online harassment.
Caleb: That’s good, I’m just writing that down. And then, uh, no, that’s a good point with Twitter. They’re not entirely incentivized to keep the feeds clean.
Rebecca: If you read the—we’ve done a lot of writing and some other people have done a lot of writing about this, but yeah—if you read the literature, there’s clearly a fairly strong overall anti-policing philosophy behind the [Predator Alert Tool] project as a whole. It’s kind of part of a larger project of just trying to empower people to be able to make decisions about their own interactions with each other without having to rely on authority figures who may be biased to mediate between them.
Maymay: Yeah, in fact, there’s probably a good link that I can send you about that, too.
Rebecca: There’s a lot of links.
Maymay: Yeah, there’s a lot of links. I don’t know what you’ve read or where you’ve found this, but….
Rebecca: Yeah, how did you come across this?
Caleb: Um, I am, do y’all know the women’s writing group LadyBits?
Maymay: I have heard of it.
Caleb: I’m one of the few lucky gents that’s in that group. There’s a list-serve and somebody forwarded, uh, there was an article a few months ago in Slantist [about Predator Alert Tool].
Caleb: Cool, thanks for sending that [link]. And then maybe just finishing off on the Facebook piece and just kind of how you thought about approaching that in terms of the Facebook community?
Rebecca: Mhm. So, like May was saying about trying to put the information at the point of use; this information exists out there on the Internet. So there are independent sites out like this. There are just websites or Tumblrs or whatever where people will go and share their stories or information about people who have sexually assaulted them. But those exist in kind of a silo’ed space because you have to A) know that they exist and B) be in the mindset to say, “Well, I’m going out on a date with this person, I’m gonna go to this website where people share their stories of sexual assault and see if this person is on it.” And nobody wants to think about that when they’re excited about going on a date with somebody. But the way that [Predator Alert Tool for] Facebook works is that it takes that kind of information that people are already sharing with each other and it puts it in a place where it’s going to be surfaced to the people who are most likely to need it, people who are actually interacting with these folks in person.
And then, I think the process with which we came up with Predator Alert Tool for Facebook is we were just kind of like, okay, well what is special about Facebook? What does Facebook have that makes it different from other social networks? And there’s two things. One, it’s that on Facebook more than anywhere else people are mostly interacting with people who they also interact with in their physical space, in their real life. Like, it’s sort of an overlay for their existing social circle. And [two], the granulated privacy settings on Facebook are relatively unique. And so, what we wanted to do was we said, okay, well how do we combine those things, how do we take advantage of that? And so what we wanted to do was give people the ability to share information with each other about people in their existing social circle and do that in a way where they had a lot of control over the privacy settings, over who saw what they posted, who saw their identity, who they wanted to share with and when, and yeah. That’s where it came out of.
Maymay: One of the simplest ways to think about Predator Alert Tool for Facebook is just that it’s a Facebook wall about somebody as opposed to a somebody’s Facebook wall. So, like, I have a Facebook wall. I control what goes there because it’s mine, and I can say delete, hide, y’know, I can ban people, etcetera. I can’t do any of that with Predator Alert Tool for Facebook statements made about me. I can’t necessarily see them all, I can’t choose whether or not people will post to them. They’re not even on Facebook. In fact, Predator Alert Tool for Facebook was designed, it’s simple, but it’s designed to share as little information as possible with Facebook itself, again in that anti-authoritarian mindset.
So, y’know, this isn’t actually unique to Predator Alert Tool for Facebook. I mean, a place where people can write about me exists in a lot of places, only one of them is Predator Alert Tool for Facebook. Another one is, like, LiveJournal, or, CraigsList, or, y’know, everywhere else on the Internet. It’s only that the context, when contextualized as, “Here are statements that may be about sexual assault about me” that people begin to get a little bit concerned. And what that showcases is that their concern is not actually about people talking about them. Their concern is that people are slandering or libeling them and how dare they say this mean thing about me! But people say mean things about each other all the time, and we would like to encourage people to interact with that in a more considered way.
Basically what I’m trying to say is that Predator Alert Tool for Facebook is another place for survivors, or anybody really, to talk about stuff. The thing that makes it different is that it’s contextualized with this specific purpose that, like most tools, I expect people will use for that purpose and sometimes not for that purpose, again like Twitter and Facebook and LiveJournal and everywhere else on the Internet.
Rebecca: Right. I mean, one of the major initial inspirations for the whole project was the Predditors Tumblr. Did you hear about this?
Rebecca: Oh okay, so, what happened was some people from Reddit started posting information about other Reddit users who they knew to be sexual predators on a Tumblr and they just shared this information using Tumblr. And then there was a lot of back and forth about it and ultimately what ended up happening was that Tumblr took it down.
Maymay: It started from the CreepShots thing. You might have heard about that.
Maymay: Yeah, so the CreepShots subreddit was—some young women took it upon themselves to essentially doxx people who were posting some very violative photos of women on CreepShots and to do this they used Tumblr but Tumlr took it down and this mirrored a lot of the same dynamics that was happening on FetLife when people in FetLife were trying to say, y’know, so-and-so didn’t respect my safeword, so-and-so went way past my limits in this SM encounter, and so on. And FetLife would take those posts down.
So the whole point about Predator Alert Tool inspired by that was we need to make an infrastructure that survivors can use themselves to both host and share this information that doesn’t rely on the services, the hosted, corporate services that are used to, y’know, you just can’t rely on a corporation to do any of this. They have their own interests and none of them are about ending rape culture.
Rebecca: Right. Ultimately the goal of the project is just to give survivors technology that—
Maymay: —already exists in many other contexts. This isn’t special.
Rebecca: —is just to give survivors technology that can be used to communicate with each other in a way and in spaces that survivors themselves control.
Caleb: Nicely put. Okay, um, that’s great, thank you. Um, and so when we were chatting over email you mentioned that there’s a bigger community that’s building and behind this stuff. Can you give me a sense of what’s going on there? I mean, I looked at your GitHub page, maymay, but….
Rebecca: There have been—so, maymay and I are the two people who primarily work on it, and then for each of the tools there have been a handful of people who have also contributed.
Maymay: Mostly people who are other users of that site, specifically.
Rebecca: Right. So people contributed ideas, or patches, or beta testing, or just kind of brainstorming.
Maymay: Promo materials, writing about it….
Rebecca: Right. Um, because a lot of folks who participate in building the tools are survivors themselves, many of them prefer to, kind of be anonymous, to not be credited, we tend to not have a list of “Thanks all the people who worked on this tool!” because, frequently, a number of those people are like, “Please don’t credit me, I just want to contribute something but I don’t want to be associated with it,” because they’re already in vulnerable positions.
Maymay: Yeah. I’m reminded of Dianne Fienstein reading the names of all the people, “Thanks all the people who contributed to the Torture Report.” [laughs] Like, maybe don’t do that.
Rebecca: [laughs] So yeah. Those conversations tend to just kind of go on everywhere. You can see some of them on GitHub, a lot of them go on on Facebook, or behind the scenes in email, in Facebook chat. Where else?
Maymay: Twitter, there’s a lot of back and forth on Twitter about it. Yeah, and, I mean, there’s simply—so, I don’t know exactly how many people at this point have contributed. I don’t have a number for you because, again, they kind of come and go and most of the people who make contributions or suggestions do so for the one branch of the project that affects them, for obvious reasons.
Rebecca: There are a couple of folks who have been working on some technology related to the blockchain because they’re interested in how that might work for a backbone for the entire project.
Maymay: And there’s also some people who are working on things that are independent of Predator Alert Tool specifically but that are very aligned, both technologically and philosophically. And, y’know, I’ll send you this, actually. I just today published a short blog post about—
Rebecca: Oh, the white paper.
Maymay: —a white paper about mapping sexual assault. So that one, actually, so that’s at the very top of my blog [right now]. It’s a relatively new, I guess, thrust for a lot of this work. And again, this was started with the idea of Predator Alert Tool for Facebook specifically designed to introduce survivors who have an abuser in common, which is different than a lot of the ways that survivor support networks typically work, which is just let’s get a bunch of survivors in a room together and start talking about experiences. That’s useful, and necessary, and helpful, but insufficient. Because you’re not going to change a local community’s or even a specific person’s mindset on an issue until you actually act locally in that community with that person.
Rebecca: And also just a very large part of how, kind of, serial rapists and abusers get away with what they do is that they’re very good at convincing their victims not to talk about it, or that it’s their fault, or that it didn’t really happen, or what have you. And so when people—
Maymay: Or it was just this one time, and so there’s—
Rebecca: “It was an honest mistake,” blah blah blah. Yeah. And so, yeah, when people start talking to each other then they’re able to see patterns with this particular person and they go, “Oh, it wasn’t just me.”
Maymay: Right. I mean, look at the—yeah, again, the key point for Facebook and for a lot of these, is that if you can de-silo the information between survivors, you end up creating a social accountability mechanism that attacks the impunity of perpetrators. ‘Cause that’s really what makes [serial rape] possible. You have a small number of serial offenders and you have a large number of other people who are enablers of that behavior in some other way, whether it be one-time assaults or whether it be, y’know, trivializing that information or victim-blaming or things like that. So, if you can attack the impunity of the serial offenders, then you create a different social environment for everybody, which can help survivors actually hold perpetrators accountable.
Rebecca: Or just get support!
Maymay: Or get support. And in a way that doesn’t rely on authority figures.
Rebecca: And just giving survivors y’know, even survivors who are not specifically looking to take action against an abuser, but just want to talk to each there, the ability to do that. The ability to seek support from their community about their experiences and sort of heal together.
Rebecca: But, to your question about the development community, it’s fairly decentralized and free-form, unsurprisingly. I mean, it’s a big sprawling open source project. Lots of people have ideas for it. People sort of throw ideas out there all the time. Some of those ideas go somewhere, other ideas don’t. I have a list as long as my arm of sites that it would be good to have a Predator Alert Tool for. We started talking a little while ago about a Predator Alert Tool for Ello but that didn’t really go anywhere.
Maymay: Ello didn’t really go anywhere.
Rebecca: And then there are some of these, sort of, larger, more over-arching, “How do we take these bits and pieces and build them into a larger, sort of, more integrated toolset.” So, like, this blockchain, this idea of having a way for Predator Alert Tool to communicate with PAT-OKC.
Maymay: There’s 93 issues on the GitHub tracker for Predator Alert Tool for Facebook. There are different repositories for all the other Predator Alert Tools. They each have their own set of dozens of tickets. So, yeah, there’s a lot of thought and you can, I suppose, enumerate the number of people who’ve contributed to those discussions if you wanted, but that would give you another slice, rather than the whole thing, I suppose is my point.
Rebecca: Right. And one of the most important things about the project is just the idea.
Rebecca: I mean, what the tool does…
Maymay: It’s a proof of concept.
Rebecca: …there are people who it has helped in a really immediate way. But I think the biggest part of it is just showing that this is possible. That centering the needs of survivors and the safety of vulnerable people in the way that we build the infrastructure of the Internet is possible. And just getting people thinking and talking about ways that that might happen. We just wanna change the conversation.
Caleb: That’s awesome. Tell me about non-developer users. Do you hear back through them?
Maymay: Uh, yeah. I mean, mostly, on—well, probably the best example of that is just the extremely vocal, outspoken OkCupid users who are very pleased with the Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid’s existence. I mean, there’s Tumblr blogs, I lost track of them at this point, but there’s literally hundreds of thousands of reblogs for the Predator Alert Tool for OkCupid’s posts. Y’know, there’s numerous, I think Tumblr specifically has a bunch of, like, anti-OkCupid blogs in that “OkCreepsters” and stuff like that—
Maymay: —where users will take screenshots from OkCupid or OkCupid messages of, like, some misogynistic or incredibly sexist comments and then post them on their Tumblr and then they get lots of reblogs. And then, almost invariably, I’m finding that those threads end up with someone saying, “Hey, this person was flagged on OkCupid Predator Alert Tool!” or something like that. So that’s where a lot of the word of mouth, public discussion is happening among people who don’t know about the project as a project, people who aren’t engaged politically with the project, people who are just like, “Here’s this cool thing I found for OkCupid.” That’s probably most of where that’s going on.
Rebecca: Do you know how many installs there have been for Facebook? Can you see that?
Maymay: Well, I can see how many people interacted with the tool at some point, but it’s not, like, I don’t have a stats board or anything. I don’t even really bother.
Rebecca: I think there’s less—Facebook is an interesting one because I think there’s less response and discussion of it because it is a little bit more sensitive. Because when people are interacting with Predator Alert Tool for Facebook they’re usually talking about experiences they had with people they know personally and that’s just more sensitive and more vulnerable of a thing for people to talk about than people saying, “I looked at this person’s OkCupid profile and look they’re really creepy.”
Maymay: Well, but also, when you’re interacting with people on Facebook it’s people with whom you have a difficult if not impossible time removing from your social environment.
Maymay: And so, part of the trouble with a retributive justice system like the legal system is that, y’know, exile doesn’t actually create a safer environment for anybody. And when you’re talking about a situation as widespread as consent violations, then you’re not really gonna make headway if your only choice for accountability is, “Let’s exile 30% of the population.” Like, that’s an unrealistic bar to set at all, and it’s certainly not helpful to people in an immediate way.
Rebecca: It’s not something that’s implementable right now.
Maymay: Right, you can’t do that right now.
Rebecca: This is one of the key things when we started thinking about Facebook. Think about how many people have victims of sexual assault and then think about what a huge percentage of the population uses Facebook. So, it’s very likely that a large number of people are either Facebook friends or friends-of-friends with the person who sexually assaulted them. And even if you block your rapist, you probably have Facebook friends in common with them. You’re still going to have to interact with them, deal with their presence on your wall, in your social space, when you log on, even if you disconnect your own relationship with them, because you’re still sort of enmeshed in a social web with that person.
Maymay: Yeah, I mean, even Twitter, today, right? Twitter’s newest block features, you can block somebody, and they’re touting the fact that they won’t be able to see your Tweets and you’ll never see their tweets. But just the other day, someone I follow retweeted someone I blocked and I saw that tweet. So, it’s like, this isn’t, y’know, that mindset—it’s just not working.
Rebecca: Yeah, and I think this has always been the case. But I think that social media just makes this clearer than ever. That it’s not so simple as “just ignoring it.” You can’t really get away from people in your social environment who have a negative impact on your life.
Maymay: And also that negative impact can, like, affect your life through second- and third-order connections. That’s the whole point of a social network.
Rebecca: Even if you never see them, they still have the ability to impact you, so that’s a thing that people need support around. That’s a thing that people need to be able to talk with other people who are having the same experience about. Something that people need to be able to come up with ways to address other than, y’know, “Should I or should I not report this guy to the police?”
Maymay: I guess it’s like a form of collective action, right, the kind of survivor support a connection via an abuser that they’re both aware of. You take it out of the realm of individual survivors have to act by, say, blocking somebody, to two survivors can now share with one another supportive actions, just the two of them, or they can take that and include a third survivor, or a community which they can then mobilize to action. That can’t happen if your only response is “block that person,” because that’s pushing—that’s the “don’t get raped” personal responsibility model. If you don’t want to see that person, if you don’t want that person to interact with you, just block them or just avoid them. Except that it ignores the fact that a social network is a network and in the same way that privacy is a network problem in a networked age, then sexual assault—survivorship—is also a network issue on social networks. It’s not about individual acts alone, it’s about individuals acting in concert, collectively. But you can’t do that if you only have information about individual quote-“isolated”-incidents.
Caleb: Right. Okay, no, that’s a really good point. It’s a good parallel with privacy, too. Just kind of like, is it possible to even start to push some of these companies to really draw those lines. It’s a network.
Maymay: Yeah. Danah Boyd, if you’re not familiar with her work, has done a lot of work on youth and privacy online and she has some really good elucidations about what a networked privacy model might be and how Facebook is actually a good example of what fails. Because it’s the friend-of-a-friend problem. Like, we both know John, but only you trust John. So I then have to figure out how much I trust you because you trust someone I don’t trust.
Caleb: Um, so one piece, I mean, I’d like to detour just a little bit, you know, Maymay, I’d love to just chat a minute about what made you, sort of, jump into the freelance developer world, and I know you’ve been doing some consulting for a while. I know this will definitely not be the focus of the story, but it’s the kind of details that help people come in as someone who’s gone from, y’know, the consulting world, or the for-profit world, and is doing real good things now. So, could we talk just a little bit about that and about what made you make that shift in your life and what you were doing?
Maymay: Uh, sure. I mean, uh, for what it’s worth, I started by doing good stuff that wasn’t for profit, when I was a kid. The detour was the for-profit, corporate stuff, as I think is the case for most people. Um, and I think a lot of people simply get derailed on what they were already doing as young people and youth and children, which was good and helpful for their community and their family by things like school and jobs, and then they can’t ever seem to find the—like, they think a career or something is a path back, but—
Rebecca: They get stuck in that, sort of, rat race.
Maymay: Yeah, they get stuck in the rat race. But that’s the detour for most people. That’s not where people start. That’s not where I started.
Caleb: So what kind of good stuff were you doing as a kid?
Maymay: Well, so, the first website I ever made was a website about Bipolar Disorder, which I was diagnosed with at twelve. And it was in 1996-ish, which at the time was, like, a pretty big deal about bipolar disorder to exist. And when people would, y’know, Alta-Vista search or Yahoo! Directory’ed it, “Bipolar Disorder” I mean, they would find my website, which ended up being really helpful to a lot of people, based on a lot of the email correspondence that I’ve gotten and still exists on that site. I stopped doing that when I was a teenager because I was just completely overwhelmed with the response, and had my own issues with school, and my own personal life to deal with, and I wasn’t prepared to deal with thousands of letters. So, um, I stopped. And, um, I disappeared into the rat race for a little while—about six or seven years—and realized I hated it, and I’ve been clawing my way out ever since. Um, yeah. And then a couple years ago I started this project, y’know, after meeting you [Rebecca] at the Transcending Boundaries Conference. So.
Caleb: Very nice. Okay. Good. So the site that you’d done about bipolar disorder, I just wanna validate, ‘cause obviously it’s just, would you mind if I included in the piece that you suffer from bipolar or I’m happy to leave that out as well.
Maymay: Um, I mean don’t suffer from it, for what it’s worth.
Caleb: Okay, good.
Maymay: I mean, I—I’ll send you a blog post that I wrote about this issue recently that has a lot of background on that.
Rebecca: You wrote a blog post about this recently?
Rebecca: I missed this one.
Maymay: You missed this one? It’s the “drugging people is different than taking drugs” post.
Rebecca: Oh, maybe I did see this. You wrote a lot of stuff while I was…
Maymay: I did write a lot of stuff. So, I blog a bunch, as you can probably tell, Caleb. And here we go. You’re welcome to link to this piece, which talks a little bit about that fact. And basically it’s, uh, yeah. The medical industry doesn’t know what the fuck it’s talking about with respect to a lot of mental illnesses—quote “mental illnesses”—and so this post, just, y’know, mentions that and is like, okay, maybe I have bipolar disorder but that was not really a thing one could have before, like, y’know, forty years ago. It hadn’t been invented, so, like, what does that mean? So, sure, maybe I suffer from it or maybe there’s just a whole other way of having experiences in the real world that doctors want to control.
Rebecca: Are you familiar with the term neurodiversity?
Caleb: Sure, yeah, I was actually a neurology major, so….
Rebecca: Okay, yeah, so there is a sort of neurodiversity, mad pride movement around, rethinking how we define mental illness, etcetera.
Caleb: Okay, yeah. Okay, um, no, this is good, really good context. So, and the site was an information site about bipolar disorder that you were managing, kind of, in high school?
Maymay: Well, in middle school.
Rebecca: It’s still online, right?
Maymay: Yeah, parts of it. I didn’t manage to save all of it. So, when AOL shut down their AOL-hosted sites, I lost a little bit, but I have an archive of it, which is on that site I linked you to from that post, so you’re welcome to peruse it at your pleasure. And it’s basically just a, yeah, an information site, but it was primarily a, like, personal journaling site. It was a blog before blogs were called blogs. Like, when you were writing HTML pages and then posting them in reverse chronological order. That was my blog.
Maymay: And so, I made that and it had a lot of information about bipolar disorder, because that was a big part of the narrative of why I was quote-“having trouble in school,” which I used as a, like, “I shouldn’t be in school! Because this is ridiculous.” And so I sort of connected the schooling issues with mental illness issues with social stigma of mental illness, which in 1996 was a way bigger stigma than it is today, which is saying something considering it’s still a huge stigma today. And, yeah, and so that was—so anyway, my point is, I’ve always been making websites and projects and, I guess, tools, and—I wasn’t really a programmer. I didn’t know how to program back then. I taught myself how to use the Internet and the Web when I was in middle school to make that website and it’s, I guess, destiny or happy circumstance that ended up taking me along a tech route. I don’t have a computer science degree, I’m not a professional programmer anymore. I suppose I was a professional programmer for a while.
Rebecca: I mean, it sounds like you got paid a lot of money to program for a while. I think that makes you a professional programmer whether or not you went to school for it.
Maymay: Yeah. [laughs] That’s true. Fair enough. Yeah. I don’t have any degrees or anything is what I’m trying to say.
Caleb: Sure. Okay. I liked your—and so, at this point you won’t take even a project that’s for profit. I saw that on your site?
Maymay: Yeah, I mean, I’m lucky enough to have a lot of very kind social connections and friends. That means that I’m mostly taken care of if I don’t have—
Rebecca: We’re willing to help them out if they’re in a bad situation.
Rebecca: Or it’s just really cold out.
Maymay: Yeah, I’m sort of hibernating for the Winter with this one, who’s been very, very kind to me.
Caleb: Cool, okay.
Rebecca: But you also get donations. I mean, so that’s the thing, pretty much all the software that May has written is open source and [supported] on a donations basis. And people do donate on a pretty regular basis because a lot of people find it useful. So.
Maymay: Which is to say, you can use the software—it’s free software, period. It’s [released to the] public domain, unencumbered, it’s legally open source, there’s no copyright, it’s anti-copyright software, basically. But, um, if you find it useful then donating to me one of the primary ways that software can be updated and maintained because today I’m still one of the primary programmers working on all of these tools.
Caleb: And give me a sense, what are—and you’re not just talking about the Predator Alert Tools. You’re obviously talking about other pieces as well?
Maymay: Yeah. Um, like, if you saw my homepage you probably saw the WordPress seed bank plugin, which has its own story. And, um, the most popular software—I think more recently the most popular software are WordPress plugins “Tumblr Crosspostr” and “Inline Google Spreadsheet Viewer.” Both are just utility tools. One is a way to link your WordPress blog and your Tumblr blog. And the point there is just, again, data portability. Like, I don’t trust Tumblr, I don’t trust corporate entities, but WordPress is free software and it’s more feature-rich than Tumblr.
So, the right way to think about Tumblr is not as a blogging platform, but as a social network. And what that means that you can use WordPress as your content creation tool for content you put on Tumblr. And what that means is that if Tumblr ever takes down your posts, which they have for me—about Predator Alert Tool!—then you still have copies. You can move that data to other places where you control it, and you essentially always have a running backup of your Tumblr blog, because you’re not actually using Tumblr to create any of the content that you put on Tumblr. So [Tumblr Crosspostr] just links the two very, very effectively.
And then Inline Google Spreadsheet Viewer does something very similar for Google Spreadsheets, which a lot of sites everywhere from, y’know, like, a local pub’s dart league who wanna publish dart scores all the way to VCs who use, y’know, who make financial spreadsheets for presentations use for their WordPress blog. And, again, it’s just a small piece of software that I have a little note at the bottom that’s like, hey, if you like it, please donate. And a lot of people do.
Rebecca: And I think they still get some royalties from books they get on programming.
Maymay: Seven dollars for the last quarter.
Maymay: I wrote some books on web development that got published by, uh, Apress, Inc. and Friends of ED publishing. They’re a publishing outfit out of, Richmond or something? Anyway, they, yeah, last quarter I got $7!
Rebecca: Hey, that’ll buy you like a beer and a half here in Oklahoma.
Maymay: I know! It’s pretty good. For a whole [year’s] quarter it’s not so much, but, it’s good.
Maymay: And, of course, the donations are not always money. They’re food and shelter, but a lot of them are food through gift cards and stuff, too. So, y’know, a lot of the donations—like, if I were to account for all of the donations that I get, a lot of them actually comes in the form of, like, Starbuck’s gift card money and stuff.
Caleb: Right. So you’re well-caffeinated, is what you’re saying?
Maymay: I am usually quite well-caffeinated. Yes. That’s actually a problem.
Caleb: I’ve been trying to cut back, too.
Maymay: It’s so hard! And it’s so hard for me, too, because so much of that stuff is on the card, right? I can just go to a Starbucks and be like, “Can I get a tall coffee?” or whatever. And so I do. Yeah.
Caleb: I’ve started setting a timer for myself, now, where I’m not allowed to have coffee within, like, that three-hour period.
Rebecca: Are you trying to go for endurance? To see how long you can go without coffee?
Caleb: Yeah. Well, I’m just trying to—I know that a cup of coffee will last longer than it thinks it will, so I’m just convincing it that it will.
Maymay: Yeah, I managed to cut back from the “grande” to the “talls,” so I feel good about that. But, I mean, it’s helpful, coffee is. Especially when I’m on the road. It’s just something that’s so, it’s just such an important part of keeping myself sane.
Caleb: Yeah. No, it’s good, it’s the morning ritual that’s hard to dispense with. That’s for sure. On your LinkedIn it said that you’re in San Francisco. Do you live here partially as well?
Maymay: I used to. I lived in SF for three years? 2008? 2009? 2010? Almost four years.
Rebecca: But about a year of that was mostly traveling to conferences and stuff.
Maymay: [laughs] Oh yeah. That’s right.
Rebecca: This is the story that May told me when we met, was, “Well, I have this apartment in San Francisco, but I’ve been traveling so much, doing so much stuff for the last year, I’ve spent no time there, so it doesn’t make sense for me to pay rent anymore.”
Rebecca: So they were like, just, giving away all their stuff and getting rid of their apartment to go on the road.
Maymay: Yeah. Well, because I didn’t have a job anymore at that point. Um, that was 2010? I think. Yeah, so in 2010-ish I stopped working [in a job] for income, like, at all. And I didn’t have any income, but I still had this apartment, and I was paying rent, because I still had savings from previous tech jobs, because technology, woo.
Maymay: And, so, yeah. So, I was basically just watching my finances dwindle, and I was like, look, I can’t actually afford this apartment if I’m not going to have any income, obviously. And so later that year I decided to host a “take all the things” party and gave all of my stuff away. The lease ending anyway, so I was like, okay, good. The lease is over, I won’t get a new apartment, and I’ll fly to Denver—
Rebecca: And sleep on my couch!
Maymay: And sleep on your couch.
Rebecca: While they were trying to figure out what the hell they were gonna do.
Maymay: And while you were putting together the next conference that we were working on. So, yeah. So, I basically just threw in my hat to do organizing and activist work for as much as that’ll help us survive. And, we did! And we’ve been working together ever since.
Caleb: Great. And, Rebecca, you’re doing—you’re organizing conferences?
Rebecca: Oh, so this was—so the way that May and I met was, we met at a conference on the East coast called Transcending Boundaries, which is kind of an overall gender/sexuality, it started out as the Northeastern bisexual regional conference and then they expanded it to include trans folks, poly folks, all kinds of—just to get everyone together to talk about all the weird ways they do sex and relationships, which was fun. And I met May there. And May was talking about something that they had been doing for a while, which was running unconferences [called KinkForAlls].
Rebecca: Right. So I got really excited about this idea of this sexuality unconference, because I thought the structure of getting a bunch of people together to share their ideas with each other rather than trying to, like, invite in experts, was really cool. And I wanted to go to one. And there wasn’t one happening, so I decided to throw my own.
Maymay: That’s usually how the other ones happen, too.
Rebecca: Right. And so, that was how May and I first started collaborating. I was like, hey, you’ve done a bunch of these before. I’ve never done this before. Can I email you some questions? Can we chat about it? And they were like, well actually, I’m moving out of my apartment. How about I just come to Denver and I’ll help you put it on. And so we did that.
Maymay: So it was at the same time as, like, all this I’m giving up my apartment, I don’t have any income anymore, I don’t know what I want to do with my life. Why am I still working for other people who are corporations? What’s going on here? So, yeah. It all coincided. It was very timely.
Rebecca: Yeah. We did that together. And then not long thereafter I quit my job. So I guess May’s a good influence. [laughs]
Rebecca: I have had a number of other jobs since. I don’t have the fortitude to live in my car. [laughs]
Caleb: And you’re also a developer by trade, during the day?
Rebecca: No. Um, I don’t actually code. I’ve done a lot of the conceptual work on this project. I’ve tried to learn a little bit of coding. May’s kind of teaching me how to use GitHub. [laughs] But, yeah, most of my contributions have been user experience, and documentation, and, like….
Maymay: Yeah, this is one of the problems also with, like, open source projects and the way some of these tools are portrayed. It’s like whoever writes the code gets “the credit” but a lot of design goes into this and, just, thinking and, like, philosophical approach, and one of the whole arguments that I was trying to make in the corporate world that really fell on deaf ears was the fact that the way you approach a tool is going to influence both what that tool can do and how that tool is used. So we should maybe think about what the hell we’re doing with these incredibly complicated and incredibly overarching technological projects for social infrastructure. And maybe that has something to do with, like, all the social fuckuppery that’s happening in the wider world. And, y’know, that wasn’t really an argument that a lot of, y’know, Fortune 500 CEOs wanted to listen to, but it was an argument that Rebecca and I had a lot to talk about, and so we did.
Rebecca: Right. So, my background is in sociological research. And, so that’s kind of the collaboration. May brought the tech side and I brought the social theory side. And with our powers combined—
Rebecca: We have the Predator Alert Tool.
Caleb: Got it. Got it. Got it. Got it. Okay, that makes perfect sense.
Maymay: “With our powers combined,” I like that.
Caleb: Did you guys ever watch Captain Planet growing up?
Maymay: Socioloy! Technology! We need two more rings! Three more rings? How many rings were there? Five?
Rebecca: Every time I think about Captain Planet I just think of hanging out at my brother’s house, listening to him and his very drunk roommates argue about what is “Heart.” What is that? That’s not an element?
Maymay: It’s an extra spirit element.
Caleb: There’s something kind of meta in that, too. Right? Okay, uh, this is wonderful information. I think I’m gonna sit down and try and write this thing here. But I’ll probably, maybe shoot a few, like, follow-up/clarification emails your way. Is that cool?
Maymay: Sure. Yeah.
Maymay: Emailing is probably the best way to get to us, actually. What’s your deadline? What are you working under?
Caleb: Well, my editor did the old, y’know, reverse on me and is asking for it. That’s why I’m kind of rushing to get this in. He was asking for this by, like, tomorrow afternoon. I mean I can always push back a little bit, but, I’m gonna try to write most of this tonight and then, y’know, they wanted—basically there were a couple of other stories that dropped out. I’ve been wanting to write this, actually get in touch with you, for a little while and write this story. But another story dropped out, they needed me to fill in, so I was hoping on a wing and a prayer that y’all would be available. That’s kind of how it happened. Yeah. There you have it. So, funny how that works out. So anyway, but yeah, it’ll be on Medium and Backchannel, it should be a story that gets some mileage. I really just wanted to tell the story of these tools that you guys are building.
Maymay: Cool. Well, thanks.
Maymay: The links that I sent you, if you’ve been watching the text channel in Skype here, those links each reference, like, points that we talked about, so they might help you out. But I would caution you not to get too sucked into all the links, because there are many, and we’ve been writing about this for, like, three years.
Rebecca: And there’s a lot of—as I’m sure you can imagine—there’s a lot of people who support the tool, but there are a lot of people who really don’t. And so there is all kinds of battling and culture wars and people arguing about theory and people telling other people that they’re terrible human beings and, yeah, it gets kinda icky.
Caleb: Yeah, no, I’m anticipating the trolls that’ll come my way after publishing this—
Rebecca: Oh yeah.
Caleb: —so it’s fine. But, I write on the Internet, so, y’know.
Maymay: Yes. That.
Caleb: Okay, well thank you so much for your time. And I will be in touch over email. But, uh, have a wonderful evening!
Rebecca: Great. Thank you.
Maymay: Thank you.
Rebecca: Have a good night.